Rock singer Patti Scialfa could have been a household name, but she decided to be a good mother instead.
Scialfa, 51, considered the first lady of rock ’n’ roll because she’s married to music legend Bruce Springsteen, follows the philosophy of another first lady, the late Jacqueline Kennedy, who once said, “If you bungle raising your children, I don’t think whatever else you do well matters very much.”
Scialfa (pronounced SKAL-fah) remains one of the most respected women in music for her folk-rock influenced singing, writing and guitar-playing. In the 1980s, she recorded or performed with the Rolling Stones, Southside Johnny & the Asbury Jukes, and Buster Poindexter before joining Springsteen’s E Street Band in 1984.
Three years later, she was offered a solo record deal, but Springsteen called and asked her to join his upcoming tour. The two fell in love and married in 1991, and her solo career took a backseat to her marriage and family. “Bruce and I set the first priority in the children,” says Scialfa of sons Evan, 14, and Sam, 10, and daughter Jessica, 12. “To really say, ‘Look, the kids come first,’ and get it out on the table is important when the decisions come along, like when we’ll tour. We don’t book anything until we go over the kids’ schedules and make sure we are home for the plays and things like that.”
In 1993, she released her debut solo CD, Rumble Doll, when she was six months pregnant with her third child. Although the record received rave reviews, she wasn’t willing to fully promote it by touring or traveling because she faced the prospect of having three children in diapers.
“You can’t do it all, whatever it is,” she says. “Once Bruce and I got together, I wanted to have a real relationship that was going to create a family and a beautiful, emotional environment. That was more important to me than my ambition.”
Telling her story
It’s taken her 11 years to release her follow-up CD, 23rd Street Lullaby, because her career came after children’s birthday parties, homework, extracurricular activities and the E Street Band’s touring schedule. Now she’s taking center stage to sing her own songs instead of performing her husband’s music. “It’s a nice opportunity because Patti has given so much of herself to my music over the years,” Springsteen says.
Now that her children are older, she finally has the time to sit down and talk about her work without interruption. Warm and approachable, a denim-clad Scialfa nibbles an olive as she kicks off her high heels and rests her manicured feet on the sitting room table in New York’s Lowell Hotel. Although Scialfa is a familiar face onstage, little is known of her life offstage because she prefers to remain “hidden.”
“We have a lot of deep and philosophical conversations now and then, but we also love to talk about clothes and go horseback riding,” says her friend Soozie Tyrell. “She’s a real gal’s gal. She’s very soft on the outside and very loving, but inside she is very strong.”
Scialfa’s new CD explores her experiences as a 20-something starving artist living in Manhattan’s Chelsea District, playing clubs such as Kenny’s Castaway and Dr. Generosity’s. “I just wanted to tell my story,” she says. “Honestly, you can feel like you’re always being viewed through the life of your husband when you’re in the situation of being married to someone well-known.
“For me, this record was a chance to give myself some autonomy,” she says. “This is my past, this is who I am, this is where I came from.”
She rose at 4:30 a.m. to write songs for her album, before she began the day’s duties of tidying the downstairs and making breakfast for the family. “The other day I was rehearsing at the house and one of the kids said, ‘Aren’t you going to take me to the beach?’” she says. “I swear, they see it like an infidelity: ‘How could you place this above me?’ But I’m not placing it above them.
“I think women are torn all the time: Do they work? Do they not work? I worry, ‘Am I doing it right? Am I doing enough? Am I giving enough of myself?’”
Her children now realize that their parents don’t have normal occupations. “I try to teach them, without making them feel guilty, that they are very privileged and with that privilege comes a really big sense of responsibility,” she says. “If you don’t have the responsibility with it, then it becomes ugly.”
A Jersey girl at heart
Scialfa was raised in the New Jersey towns of Deal (pop. 1,070) and Oakhurst (pop. 4,152). “There was a real moderate current going through where I grew up,” Scialfa says. “You knew your next-door neighbor; you could smell their barbecue. They would let you pick things from their garden.”
But coupled with that safe environment were the traditional views of women that Scialfa found to be stifling. “I was brought up in a generation where you were not given the signals to pursue your ambitions as you’re given now,” she says. “I was in the generation still where you felt the confines of being a woman. There were tremendous limitations put on your freedom and creativity and just who you were.”
When Scialfa was recently in Lake Placid, N.Y. (pop. 2,638), with her family, a female doll display in a toy store caught her eye. “They had these dolls dressed up with a microphone and a guitar slung over their shoulders,” she says. “I said, ‘Look at this! This is fantastic!’ I said to Bruce, ‘When I was a young girl, this would have been revolutionary. It would have been unheard of.’”
After graduating from Asbury Park High School, she couldn’t wait to move to a big city to pursue her dreams of a music career. “What’s the first thing you want to do when you are young?” she asks. “You want to leave: ‘I gotta get out. I have to leave everything my mother believes in because I don’t want to be like my mother.’ When you are a young woman trying to establish your own identity, you have to leave, just as boys have to leave.”
She studied at the University of Miami before moving to New York in 1974 and graduating from New York University. She began making a living as a singer, performing as a street musician with Tyrell and in clubs with her band. Caught up in New York’s intoxicating music community, she thought she would never move back to New Jersey’s quiet, tree-lined streets. “I wanted to live like women got to live in books I had read,” she says.
Then she had children, a transformation that ultimately led to her embracing her small-town roots.
“To me, it became a very clear thing,” she says. “If I’m thinking, ‘Where’s the best place I can raise my children?’ That would be Jersey. All my family is in New Jersey. I have a huge extended family, Italian and Irish, and Bruce’s family is there. Bruce and I grew up about 10 miles from each other. There’s about 40 or 50 family members. I like having a lot of family around. I thought it would normalize the situation.”
In 1995, the Scialfa-Springsteens moved from Beverly Hills, Calif., to Rumson, N.J. (pop. 7,137). “We live in a town between where we both grew up,” she says. “We’re lucky because the school is across the street. I like having them close to me.”
And for Scialfa, that motherly bond is the best success of all.